Almost every morning, a Syrian girl with a winning smile takes a deep breath and dives into the Olympic swimming pool on the outskirts of Berlin. As she rips through the water with a butterfly stroke honed from a lifetime of swimming, Yusra Mardini never forgets how close she came to drowning in the Mediterranean in 2015 as she fleed the civil war in Syria.
When the motor on their dangerously overcrowded boat stalled off the coast of Turkey, Yusra and her older sister, Sarah, swam for more than three hours in the churning seas, pushing the boat towards the Greek islands. They helped save not just their own lives but those of 18 other refugees.
“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned,” Yusra said with typical nonchalance after her story became known, “because I am a swimmer.”
A swimmer she is. As she dives again into the water, her babyish face hidden behind goggles, Yusra uses the memory of that traumatic journey and the bloody civil war from which she escaped to power her dreams.
In the two and a half years since she arrived in Europe, Yusra – pronounced “eesra” – has competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She has met the Pope and Barack Obama. She has given speeches at the United Nations and to the World Economic Forum in Davos. She’s been appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She has written a memoir, Butterfly, and a feature film about her, directed by Stephen Daldry, the Oscar-winning director of The Hours and Billy Elliot, is now in the works.
“Yes, we are refugees, but we are normal human beings,” Yusra, 20, tells me she wants people to know. “We think about our futures. We care about our kids. We are doctors and engineers and teachers. We are educated, but we just don’t have the chance to continue our normal lives because of war.”
As lofty as her achievements have been since she fled Syria, Yusra’s focus is now back on swimming. She knows that she must get her times much lower to have a chance of competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “If I am going to be realistic,” says Yusra, who at 5’5’’ is small for a swimmer, “I know it will be really good if I am in the top 20 or 40 in the world. But I’m not going to take that as an answer, so I am putting everything I can into this until the next Olympics."
Growing up, life in Syria was good for a family like the Mardinis. Yusra’s father, Ezzat, worked as a swimming coach at a sports complex near their home in Damascus. When Yusra was just four, Ezzat threw her into the pool. He was tough and both Yusra and Sarah were soon training three times a week and competing. One of Yusra’s earliest memories is of her father making them watch Michael Phelps win the 100m butterfly at the 2004 Olympics. Yusra, six at the time, recalls that as the moment she decided that she too wanted to be an Olympic champion.
The civil war began in March 2011, when the Syrian authorities arrested and tortured teenage school boys they believed had scrawled anti-
government graffti on a wall. “I was on the bus,” says Yusra, who was 13, “and people started whispering, ‘This is what they did to the kids.’” Soon there were demonstrations against the government, provoking a spiral of military reprisals and rebel counterattacks. “It was terrifying,” Yusra says. “Sometimes I had to stay under the table or sleep in a bed with my family because we could hear shooting and tanks.”
In August 2012, fighting broke out in Daraya as the government tried to wrest control of the suburb. Daraya was heavily bombed and, after government paramilitaries moved in, an estimated 1000 people were killed in three days. The noise of gunfire, mortars and bombs was constant. Families were torn apart; people disappeared. Forty people died from a suicide bomb near Yusra’s mother’s work. Childhood friends were killed. The unthinkable became normal.
Their home in ruins, the Mardinis were forced to move every few months to costly flats in the government-controlled area of Damascus. Then Yusra's father disappeared. "He didn't answer his phone," she says. "For a whole day we didn't know what had happened to him." Ezzat had been abducted by paramilitaries, strung up by his feet, beaten and tortured, before they realised he was not the man they were looking for.
Yusra lost count of the times she came close to death. After training one night, a mortar slammed into the ground just in front of where she and Sarah were walking. Another day, a rocket-propelled grenade smashed through the roof and landed, unexploded, in the bottom of the pool where Yusra was swimming.
When Yusra and Sarah discovered that one of their father’s cousins was planning to make the trip to Germany, they were finally able to persuade their reluctant parents to let them go with him. A month later, Yusra and Sarah boarded a flight to Istanbul via Beirut.
The migration crisis of 2015 was horrifying and deadly.
According to the International Organization for Migration, 1,004,356 refugees crossed the Mediterranean to Europe that year.
The largest number, 214,266, came from Syria. A total of 3771 people perished in the Mediterranean. Out of Syria’s prewar population of around 21 million, 5.5 million people are now refugees; more than 12 million have been internally displaced. The civil war has claimed the lives of 465,000 people.
After contacting a smuggler, Yusra, Sarah, their relatives and some other refugees were driven to a forest on the western Turkish coast. Hundreds of refugees were waiting in the sweltering heat, corralled by gangs of armed smugglers. The refugees each had to pay $1500 for the 10-kilometre journey to the Greek island of Lesbos. (Yusra and Sarah’s trip was financed with family savings.) They waited four days, with almost no food and little water.
They were shocked when they saw their boat: an inflatable dinghy meant for six people. There would be 20 of them, including an Iraqi woman with a baby and two young children. They set off at around 7pm, the dinghy so weighed down that water filled up the bottom with every wave. After 15 minutes, the engine stopped and waves threatened to capsize it. They used their mobile phones to call the Greek and Turkish coast- guards, but neither would come to save them. People started to pray.
One man jumped into the sea, so the boat would sit higher in the water. Sarah and Yusra, among the only ones who could swim, also jumped in. As the hours passed, with hopes of rescue fading as fast as the light, Yusra admits she did not expect to survive.
“I was thinking, ‘This is my end now,’” she says. “But I was thinking about the children on the boat more than me. I was feeling sorry about how many people had been forced to do that. Maybe our story was hard, but there were people who had lost their families and this was the only way they had.”
After three hours, Yusra and Sarah were so overwhelmed with cold and exhaustion, they clambered back onto the boat. Miraculously, as they lay recovering, the engine spluttered back into life and they moved quickly towards Lesbos.
The rest of their 25-day journey through Europe, along a trail being taken by hundreds of thousands of other refugees that summer, was humiliating. “The restaurants on Lesbos would not give us anything, food or water,” says Yusra. “We offered them $500, just for water or juice, but they said they were not allowed to sell to us.”
Yusra and Sarah queued for two days for a temporary residence permit, which allowed them to buy a ticket on a ferry to the mainland. Over the following days, sometimes walking, sometimes taking buses provided by smugglers for hundreds of euros, they travelled through Macedonia and Serbia to Budapest. When they caught a train to the Hungarian border, they were thrown off by the police.
“You feel as if you’re not human,” Yusra recalls. “You feel like you have no country, you’re no-one.” Eventually they arrived in Austria and trains were provided to take them to Berlin. On September 7, they finally arrived at a large refugee camp in Berlin’s west.
Much of their first, freezing Berlin winter was spent queueing, as they and tens of thousands of other refugees fulfilled the arduous German bureaucratic formalities. As many as 5000 refugees sometimes queued through the night.
If resilience and luck had taken Yusra that far, they weren’t about to desert her. A volunteer at the refugee camp told her there was a
well-known swimming program at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, part of the Olympic Park complex nearby. The club let Yusra and Sarah try out.
“Technically, they were really good,” says Sven Spannekrebs, a coach at the centre. “But Yusra’s aerobic level was very bad and she had lost her feeling for the water.” The club let the sisters train and offered them accommodation, so they were able to move out of the camp.
Yusra found it difficult at first, but the club gave the sisters a community and German friends. “Her progress has been fascinating,” says Spannekrebs, who has become something of an older brother to Yusra and now supervises her training. “It’s higher than I ever saw for someone who had left swimming.”
The initial plan was for Yusra to aim for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but word began to seep out that the International Olympic Committee were thinking about having a refugee team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Although Yusra’s dream had always been to compete at the Olympics, she was torn.
“I thought, ‘If I am with the refugee team, people are going to feel pity for me,’” she says. “Then I realised that it was an opportunity that would not come to a lot of people.” Yusra didn’t expect to win a medal, and she was knocked out in the second round. But she found the experience of being at the Games “amazing. I felt so proud to be representing refugees, representing myself.” She even saw her childhood idol, Michael Phelps, although she didn’t have a chance to meet him. “One day,” she says.
As the poster girl for the Olympic refugee team, Yusra became an international celebrity. She was natural, funny and heartfelt, and she had an incredible story. She became as powerful a magnet for the world’s media as the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai had been.
Although she has found the attention often overwhelming, Yusra takes it in her stride, especially now that the rest of her family have joined her in Berlin. She lives in a at near the Olympic Park with her mother and sister; her father lives nearby. Yusra has become comfortable meeting world leaders such as Barack Obama and the Pope. She is proud to be the youngest Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR. At conferences such as Davos, she speaks without notes.
“The secret of Yusra’s success is that she is 100 per cent authentic,” believes Marc Heinkelein, her manager. “She is a very positive person with tremendous energy and will.” With Hollywood clamouring, Heinkelein negotiated the deal to bring Yusra’s story to the screen. “She’s an amazing woman,” says Daldry. “One story must speak for many.”
Heinkelein also set up a lucrative contract for Yusra to be an ambassador for clothing brand Under Armour. But the focus remains on her training, which is at least 30 hours a week. It’s not clear which country Yusra might represent at the Tokyo Olympics – she does not yet have German nationality and it will be dfficult for her to get into the very competitive German team. She might be able to swim for Syria, but that is fraught with political complications. And at present, there is no indication that the IOC will repeat the experiment of allowing a refugee team at the next Olympics.
“I want to be at the Olympics no matter what the flag is,” Yusra says. “I am Syrian in my heart, in my mind, in my soul, but I am living in Germany now, so I respect that. Whichever flag, I know that I will be representing millions of people around the world.”